Master/Slave Dialectic

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Desire and Hegel

Lacan develops his concept of desire by drawing on the master/slave dialectic of G.W.F. Hegel (as explicated by Alandre Kojève).

Lacan draws almost exclusively on the work of Hegel as it was popularised through Kojève’s lectures in Paris in the 1930s.

The central Hegelian text for Lacan is the Phenomenology of Spirit, particularly the section which elaborates the master/slave dialectic as a dawning moment of individual self-consciousness:

Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave

Two individuals confront one another.

Each experiences the confrontation as a threat to its position of uniqueness and supremacy in the world (its identity).

Thus faced with the prospect of having the two axes of their identities disrupted, the two individuals are unable to acknowledge each other as creatures of the same order without abandoning their own identities.

Each seeks recognition of his supremacy from the other, but neither will grant it to the other, since to do so would amount to ceding the claims to supremacy.

The basic steps in Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave are as follows:

The next step in this vignette is that each individual sets about asserting his uniqueness and supremacy by attempting to destroy the other. This fight is the Hegelian primal fight to the death which can have only two possible outcomes. In the first and more sterile possibility, neither individual cedes his claim to supremacy and one eventually succeeds in slaying the other. The victor is thus returned to his position of uniqueness and supremacy, at least until he encounters yet another individual and the drama plays itself out all over again.

The second possibility is that one of the individuals will succumb to the instinct for self-preservation and surrender to the other.

The chief consequence of this surrender is that the loser of the battle agrees to recognise the victor’s supremacy and to come under his control. 

This is the point at which we are now able to speak of the master (the victor) and the slave (the loser).

An irony also occurs at this point in the drama, however, in that the only recognition which the master will recognise or accept is that from an equal. The recognition of the slave, falls short of this requirement since his subjection deprives him of the equality vital to a meaningful recognition.

The master thus finds himself in a tautological position of pure self-referentiality, demanding recognition from the slave (as a creature he knows intuitively to be of the same kind as himself) and yet unable to accept the worth of that recognition since it comes from a creature whose innate inferiority he has already established. As a consequence of his victory, however, the master does not simply execute the slave, but persists in his total domination by putting the slave to work producing objects for his consumption.

Thus, for example, whereas the master had previously eaten whatever food may have come to hand, he now demands that the slave prepare the food in such a way as to make it more desirable and more completely consumable.

Whereas he may previously have had to eat whatever apples he found, the master now demands an apple pie of the slave, compelling him to produce an object of desire that will be completely obliterated in its enjoyment; the master utterly absorbs that which he enjoys in this fashion, thanks to the work of the slave in transforming the objects in the phenomenal world to render them more assimilable.

The central feature of this domination is the effect it has on the slave. In being forced to prepare objects in the world for the master’s consumption, the slave experiences the ultimate abasement of having to defer the satisfaction of his own desire (an unpleasant experience hitherto unknown to the slave) in order to gratify the desire of the master. That is, he is forced to repeat the act of recognition over and over as he concedes the master’s right of desire for a given object over his own. Even though he may be just as desirous of the apples as the master, the slave nonetheless must repeat the drama of recognition in recognising the superiority of the master’s desire for the apples. The repeated drama of recognition is given its stalemate conclusion each time the master consumes the object of desire prepared by the slave, utterly negating the material evidence of the slave’s recognition of the supremacy of his desire and re-setting the conditions for yet another repetition of the whole process.

The slave’s deferral of his own desire in preparing objects of desire for the master’s consumption is absolutely vital to the development of the slave’s consciousness, as he gradually overcomes his fear of nature (the fear of death that lead him to capitulate in his battle with the master) by altering nature through the suspension of his desire and the application of his labour. Whereas the master exists in pure self-referentiality, then, the slave learns to interact with his world, elevating that which he finds around him by transforming it, and governing desire by suspending it. As the master becomes more and more dependent upon the slave’s production for the gratification of his desire, a dialectical process takes place whereby the slave comes to control the master and each moves beyond his designation in the binary master/slave. As the producer of the master’s objects of desire, the slave gradually comes to govern the satisfaction or suspension of the master’s desire, and thus to control the master’s desire in a roundabout way. Whereas the master remains in an ignorant relation to the natural world in which he moves and desires, the slave has learned to master that world and thus to master desire. That is, in suspending his immediate urge for satisfaction (pleasure), the slave has learned how to increase the value of that desire by deferring it and displacing it. The end result of this drama is that the master expires in a well of self-referentiality, while the slave rises beyond his slavish state to master the very nature of which his fear (i.e. his fear of mortality) lead him to surrender in the primal confrontation – human community is born in the repeated suspension and deferral of desire.

This drama sets the stage for our understanding of Lacan’s conception of desire and its central role in the formation and function of subjectivity. The first important feature of the master/slave drama is that the nature of the relationship between the master and the slave is only nominally that of establishing a right of precedence over a given object of desire. What is more to the point is that the struggle between the two is a struggle for the other’s desire. What makes the master’s control over the slave gratifying, beyond the various objects of desire he produces, is that he controls the slave’s desire. In forcing the slave to transform a natural object into an object of desire, the master merely succeeds in obtaining a desirable object (an apple pie, to keep with our example). What makes this process existentially satisfying to the master is that he knows that the slave desires the apple pie as much as he does. This knowledge of the slave’s desire (whether actual or merely supposed) makes the pie all the more desirable, as it is now an emblem of the slave’s (the other’s) desire. Moreover, the more the slave must suspend his desire in order to produce a given object for the master’s consumption, the more the final product may be said to contain the sublimation of that desire.

It becomes more than itself as a result of the process by which it is transformed, effectively absorbing the slave’s suppressed and sublimated desire as added value. 

The model of desire that emerges from Hegel’s drama, and which Lacan adopts, is thus one in which desire exceeds both demand and need. Whereas demand and need can both be met, desire is an existential condition which no object or series of objects can ever satiate; it is a "lack of being" as opposed to a "lack of having" (Evans 95).

Returning thus to desire as a constitutive feature of human existence, we find a ready expression of how the desire for the other’s desire functions in the mirror stage.

The essential component to such identification, however (and the aspect that renders it impossible), is the necessity for the other similarly to desire identification with the infant.

This desire for the other’s desire is not a simple matter of mutual desire such as that experienced in erotic love, but a more all-encompassing demand for total recognition; the infant wants not some part (however large) of the other’s desire, but all of it – he or she wants to be the be-all and end-all of the other’s desire. The impossibility of such a total identification is what keeps subjectivity moving from object to object in its quest for an object that will represent and capture the other’s desire and by possession of which the individual can absorb and utterly subjugate the other’s desire. Most simply put, desire is always a desire for the other’s desire; only the other’s desire for a given object transforms it from an object of demand or need into one of desire.

The second aspect of desire which Lacan exploits from Hegel’s model is that of desire as an aggressive drive not simply to possess an object, but to assimilate it completely, to negate it beyond all redemption. This aspect of desire is most clearly represented in the case of the apple pie, which the master seeks not merely to possess, but to make a part of his identity by consuming it. The act of negating the pie by eating it is also a display of mastery over the other’s desire, since the object is to some degree always also cathected with the desire of the other (whether because he produced the object or simply because he also desires it). And while the process is nowhere near as clear-cut with objects that are not so literally consumed, the basic dynamic remains the same. Just as the infant in the mirror stage perceives his or her specular image as an object of desire, but also as a rival which must be encountered and vanquished in the process of identification, so all desire is fundamentally aggressive and annihilating. Insofar as desire is a drive to possess, it is also always a drive to obtain the absolute right of life and death (or being and non-being) over the object: "This is my (car, house, plant, book, sno-cone, etc.) and I’ll do what I want with it."

Clearly this is an extremely basic version of desire, and one which does not take into consideration such variations on the theme as are generated by the desire for objects that are desirable only because they render a more desirable object attainable or objects which can never be completely possessed by one individual and are thus subject to distribution and distortion. Nonetheless, it provides the basis for our consideration of desire in Lacan’s conception of subjectivity, and points to the fundamentally social character of desire: "The most important point to emerge from Lacan’s phrase [that "the object of man’s desire […] is essentially an object desired by someone else" (qtd. in Evans 38)] is that desire is a social product. Desire is not the private affair it appears to be but is always constituted in a dialectical relationship with the perceived desires of other subjects" (Evans 39). And while this aspect of desire is certainly important to keep in mind, it is not simply "the perceived desires of other subjects" which motivates desire, but the prohibition on fulfillment of desire which provides the most stimulus for its reproduction.

If we recall Lacan’s reliance on the insights of structural anthropology, and the dialectical nature of his thinking on desire, we can see that the establishment of human community and the formalisation of desire is as dependent on its prohibition as it is on the perception of what is desirable. As with the slave’s necessary suspension of his desire in the production of objects for the master’s consumption, each subject is governed by a series of prohibitions that make desire the ultimate motivational force in subjectivity. Analogous to the master’s prohibition of the slave’s enjoyment, the law (inaugurated by the paternal prohibition from enjoying the mother’s body) actually "creates desire in the first place by creating interdiction. Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition" (Evans 99). Interdiction effectively seals off certain objects of desire or kinds of desire as unlawful, thus endowing them with a mystique that allows for their conception as the final answer to desire. Tantamount to the curiosity-arousing command not to look in the one locked room in a many-roomed mansion, the law thus participates in the generation of desire as that which circulates endlessly around a prohibited core.